While researching online the other day, I ran across a popular Protestant website called Got Questions? (which I used to write for) that gave some doctrinally confused responses to some reader’s questions on Lent. These mistakes are revealing and, when properly understood, can actually be beneficial to Catholics as well as to our separated brethren.
By way of introduction, it is important to note is that there is more than one meaning to words like “biblical” and “unbiblical.” “Biblical” might imply that something is in the Bible (like angels), or it can mean that something is in line with what the Bible teaches (like giving to the poor). “Unbiblical,’ then, can mean something that is simply not in the Bible (like a cell phone) or it could mean “anti-biblical” referring to something that goes against what the Bible teaches (like adultery). Now, many Protestants are taught to dismiss anything not taught directly in Scripture as a man-made tradition that can (and probably should) be avoided. So, when they use or hear the term “unbiblical” many will default to an “anti-biblical” understanding.
Got Questions on Lent
For example, while Got Questions? (GQ?) admits in one article that Lent is “similar to how people in the Old Testament fasted and repented in sackcloth and ashes (Esther 4:1-3; Jeremiah 6:26; Daniel 9:3),” it is also quick to claim that, “there is nothing in the Bible that remotely suggests that Christians must follow a predetermined fast,“ and, “Lent is simply a man-made ritual of the Catholic Church.”
Next, although admitting that such practices are indeed biblical (in both of the relevant senses), GQ? then issues several warnings about actually practicing them. Further confusing its readers,GQ? considers the practice of fasting and then complains that because “fasting should be done discreetly (Matthew 6:16-18). Jesus’ command to ‘wash your face’ seems to conflict with the practice of rubbing ashes on one’s face on Ash Wednesday.” Besides being an incorrect description of ash imposition, Catholics should understand that the ashes do not signal fasting – they signal repentance.
Speaking of repentance, GQ? goes on to snarkily suggest that “repenting of sin is something we should be doing every day of the year, not just for the 46 days of Lent.” Apparently the blogger is unaware that (unlike Protestants), Catholics have an actual sacrament called “Confession” that they are encouraged to do regularly. Finally, the blogger admonishes us wayward Catholics with an obvious truth: “Lent should not be a time of boasting of one’s sacrifice or trying to earn God’s favor or increasing His love.”
Lent is Biblical
What is the best way to correctly respond to these kinds of statements concerning the Catholic understanding of Lent?
- First, as to being “biblical”, no one – not even Protestants – dismisses everything not taught directly in Scripture. There is no direct command against arson or polygamy in Scripture, yet no major Protestant denomination allows either. Nor is there a command to meet in church buildings or have pastors give sermons – yet all major Protestant denominations do so. Because they are so used to their own denomination’s traditions, they don’t often see them for what they are.
- Second, if a tradition is made up of practices that flow from Scripture, then they cannot be simply dismissed as unbiblical “traditions of men” (e.g., Mk. 7:8; Col. 2:8). Not only might they be allowable from a biblical point of view – they may even be required (e.g., 2 Thess. 2:15, 3:6).
- Third, Lent is indeed based on Scripture. Fasting and repentance in ashes were admitted to be biblical by the blog in fact – and those pretty much sum up most Lenten practices! (More HERE) Further, while Lent’s 40 day period may not be called for directly in the Bible, it recalls Jesus’ fasting and resisting temptation in the desert prior to His ministry.
As to the snide remarks implying that Catholics only practice these good things on Lent – I wonder if GQ? readers would accept the same kinds of direct and indirect criticism of, say, Christmas that they do Lent? Imagine a Jehovah’s Witness, for example, writing that, “there is nothing in the Bible that remotely suggests that Christians must follow a gift giving day,“ or, “Christmas is simply a man-made ritual of the European Church,” or that “giving is something we should be doing every day of the year, not just for the 12 days of Christmas.”
Finally as to whether or not one earns graces for practicing Lent – GQ? also makes the classic Protestant error of confusing “earning” with “meriting”. Briefly, earning is like the wage a restaurant pays its servers to work, and merit is like a tip the customer agrees to give for good service (for more see HERE). God’s blessings are often tied to our works – even in the New Testament (e.g., Rev. 1:3).
So Lent is indeed biblical – in both relevent senses. Lent’s practices are found in, and based on, the Bible, and its teac
hings are in line with Scripture as well.