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Lent, Fasting Versus Passion of Christ

In the discussion of this subject we shall constantly bear in mind that the term “Lent” originally simply meant “springtime,” as is evident to anyone who has any knowledge of the German and the Holland languages. Compare the German: lente.

However, the term “Lent” gradually came to stand for far more than for one of the seasons; it came to stand for a “religious season” on the so-called church calendar. And as such it was closely associated with what is known as the “period of fasting, preparatory to the festival of Easter.” Since this period on the church calendar falls in the early part of the year, it became confused with the season, and thus gradually the word “Lent” was confined to this use.

And, again, we should notice that this season of “fasting” is preparatory to keeping the “feast” of Easter. It belongs to the preparatory, the “pre-requisite” works of Rome, and is in very deed a denial of the only sacrifice of Christ performed for us on the Cross of Calvary.

It is for this reason, that in our formulation of our topic, we wrote: “Lent, Fasting versus the Passion,” that is, the suffering of Christ.

May we claim your attention for just a bit?

A survey of the practice of “fasting” in all cultures and climes of the world shows that this practice is universal in all religions under the sun, except in those who stand four-square upon the “foundation of Christ’s blood.” Remember that I am speaking of fasting in the sense as above circumscribed.

Fasting is practiced by people of so-called “lower cultures,” appearing in variegated forms and usages in all heathenism, as for instance the Celts, the Teutons, the Ancient Mexicans, Peruvians. All of these make “fasting” a means of appeasement to the gods and for the cultivating of the “work of the law in their hearts,” that is, of accusing or of excusing one another.

Thus also there is the custom of “fasting” as prescribed rite in the so-called “intermediate cultures,” by all the “guardians” of the Mystic religions, an attempt to be unified with divinity, as was the case with the Cynics, Stoics, Pythagoreans and the Neo-platonists. Somehow, as we shall point out more briefly later, these all must placate the “gods” by their fastings, as do the Baal priests by their loud cries on Mt. Carmel.

It is claimed by many that the practice of “fasting,” as it has been prescribed by the Church of Rome and also by the Eastern Greek Orthodox Church, finds its prototype in the fasting of the saints in the Old Testament, as well as in the fasting of Jesus himself, and his instructions that the church should fast.

However, this alleged ground for fasting cannot stand the test of good, sound exegesis of the Scriptures. In Luke 4:2 and Mk. 2:10 we read that Jesus “did not eat for forty days and forty nights.” What is the plain truth here? It is that Jesus is here our “Mediator,” who is entering into his suffering in our behalf; it is “propitiatory fasting,” it is an encounter with all the forces of hell, in order that He might be the Chief Captain and Finisher of our faith, being perfected through sufferings, that we might be brought to the glory that follows His suffering as His fruit and reward. And in Matt. 6:16 Jesus is not instituting “fasting” as a perpetual institution in his church, as he did with the Lord’s Supper, but he is simply warning against the false “fasting” which men were practicing in his day! And the day in which Jesus pronounced this saying concerning the “fast” was such, that he is here standing yet “under the law,” since he had not yet died on the Cross, and poured out the Spirit of Promise on Pentecost. And so it is pure sophistry to attempt to distill from the words of Jesus, or from His fasting a “fasting” as a corporate practice. And that Paul fasted certainly only indicates that “he became to the Jew a Jew,” in order that he might gain the more, and not that he instituted it as a rite in the church.

Hence, the “corporate” practice of fasting is nothing more than the gradual development of what was simply voluntary practice of individuals into a “canonized rite” in the Romish church, since they do not proceed from the biblical principle of “sin and grace,” but rather from the fundamentally heathenish, dualistic principle of the “natural” and the “super-natural.” Into the warp and woof of this dualism of the natural and the supernatural also the rite of fasting arose; it is the attempt of man by his “asceticism” to raise himself from the plane of the sensual-natural to the super-natural.

Such is the very bone and marrow of all “asceticism” with Rome, and with all heathenish cultures, who have fallen from the faith, having their conscience seared with an iron, speaking and teaching the doctrines of devils! For such is the principle of all who proclaim the touch not, taste not, handle not, marry not, eat not doctrines, which indeed are a religion of self-will, but do not hold on to the Head, Christ. (Col. 2)

For the term “asceticism” comes from the Greek term “askeesis,” and means: practice, bodily exercise, and, more especially, athletic training. Of this Paul says, referring to this bodily exercise of fasting, abstaining from marriage: “But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acception,” I Tim. 4:7-9.

Paul here refers, no doubt, to the asceticism, the fastings of the Gnosticists of his day, who taught the works of the law of “fasting” as a means to purification, as penitential self-purification. The sin here is that this is the Pelagian lie, which looks for the root of evil everywhere except where it really is. It does not look for it in the heart of man, and all the good alone in Christ’s death and resurrection for us, and alone in us by the life-giving Spirit!

Such is also the fastings of all asceticism today – even in those who make of “Lent” simply, as they say, “prompted by the desire to do the will of God so that no personal element of self-satisfaction may enter in to vitiate this desire.” (Catholic Encyclopedia.)

Let this last sentence not be confused with the two parts of true conversion as given in Question 88 of the Heidelberg Catechism. For the “true conversion” is not asceticism, but is a claiming in joy in God through Christ, that all things are of us, we are of Christ and Christ is God’s. Only it deplores the fact that sin, the flesh, the “old man” always and again assaults us lest we walk in the works which are out of faith, according to God’s law and unto his glory! For, let it be observed, that “conversion” is not the same as “penance,” that is, the penance of the ascetic, whether this be Romish heresy, or whether it be one of those lower or higher planes of heathen culture.

When, therefore, we speak of “Lenten sermons,” we do not take the term “Lent” in its accepted sense, but rather assume that it merely means: the suffering of Christ for His people.

However, we, who do not “keep days, years, months, etc.” as a “rite,” a preparation for something, a certain pre-requisite “work,” – we, I say – should bear in mind the beautiful Question and Answer in the Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44, where we read: “Why is there added, “he descended into hell? (Answer): “That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the Cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.”

Nay, we shall not have an ascetic “contemplation” of the sufferings of Christ, but rather a believing reception of all the benefits of the Cross in our “Lenten sermons!”

Thus only shall all flesh admit that no flesh is justified before the Lord by works of the law, but only by a living faith in the crucified and risen Savior.