Not Observing Lent? Then Why Celebrate Christmas?

Growing up in the Reformed tradition, we did not observe the season of Lent.  As with crucifixes, vestments, and other traditions within the Christian church, Lent was simply ‘too Catholic’ to be observed within our circles.  At first blush, I suppose such an objection may seem valid, but it really won’t hold up to any scrutiny, especially if we, like many, reject Lent but accept Christmas as a valid Christian observance.

Am I overstating my case?  I don’t think so.  Here’s why…

First, considering history.  I am not aware of any scholars or writers who would deny the impossibility of accurately determining the exact date (day/month) of Christ’s birth from Scripture.  The oldest dates for the observance of Jesus’ birth appear to be in the Spring, only changing to December, in the West, under the rule of Constantine during the mid-fourth century.  The first ‘hard evidence’ for the observation of Christmas on December 25th comes from a Roman calendar called the “Chronography of 354,” dated AD 354.  Prior to the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, any celebration of Christmas as a church holiday was at best sporadic (cf. Clement of Alexandria) but, more commonly, not mentioned (cf. Tertullian) or simply rejected outright as a pagan notion (cf. Origen [mid-3rd cent] and Arnobius[early 4th cent]).  In short, the celebration of Christmas was not widely observed until the mid-fourth century.

In contrast, the history of the observation of a period of fasting, repentance, and preparation prior to the celebration of the resurrection (i.e., Easter) is much older than the history of Christmas.  In the late 2nd century, Irenaus of Lyons wrote of just such a season, though it was not the 40 day season we observe today.  His mention of what we now call Lent is not a remote example.  Tertullian, who failed to mention any celebration of Christmas, wrote of a forty day period of fasting similar to what we now observe, though even here there seems to be widespread variation on the exact length of the time of preparation.  There was such a wide variation in tradition, in fact, that the Council of Nicea (AD 325) expressly mentioned forty days as the suitable practice for this pre-Easter observance.  Unlike Christmas, a Lenten-like period of preparation was so widespread in the early church that the Council felt it necessary to weigh in on the discussion.

From a purely historical perspective, then, Lent predates Christmas as a widely observed church season.

Second, considering theology.  Any celebration of Christmas at all as a Church holy day (holiday) comes solely from tradition, as there is no express biblical warrant, command, or example.  I mention this point only in response to those who reject Lent and other Christian traditions because they ‘aren’t in the Bible’ or should not be considered permissible under the Regulative Principle of Worship.  Quite honestly, you cannot have it both ways, rejecting one tradition over another on what I would argue are purely subjective grounds. To reject one and retain another is inconsistent.

So, if you do not observe Lent, why not?  I’m not trying to suggest that Christians must, but I’m also poking a little at those who suggest that Christians may not.  I should think we would all benefit from a deliberate season of preparation for Easter–reflecting upon our own sins/need for a Savior as well as preparing ourselves to be of further service to our merciful God.

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“Deadly Trappings” of Evangelicalism

Several months ago, Joe Carter wrote a blog article titled ‘Ten Deadly Trappings of Evangelism,’ where he describes his concern for “the way in which evangelicals tend to embrace whatever trends and kitsch happen to be hot sellers at ‘Christian’ bookstores.” As I read his post for the first time this morning, I couldn’t help but finding myself constantly mumbling to myself, “Yes, yes, yes!” Why? Because Mr. Carter ‘gets it’ in that, while recognizing many Evangelical fads will quickly pass, much of what has become mainstay fixtures in Evangelical culture have led Evangelicals past the point of irreverence into the land of irrelevance.

While I encourage you to read the entire article, let’s go ahead and look at just a few…using Carter’s numbering:

#1) The Sinner’s Prayer—Carter says, “The gates of hell have a special entrance reserved for people who thought that they had a ticket into heaven because someone told them all they needed to do was recite the ‘sinner’s prayer.'” I couldn’t agree more. For a group that is almost completely anti-sacramental, Evangelicals practically treat the sinner’s prayer as an ex opere operato indispensible means of grace, the Evangelical sacrament, that guarantees one’s salvation ‘from the work performed’ (which is what ex opere operato means).

#3) “Do you know Jesus as…” —here Carter writes, “This is one question that needs never be asked” and then goes on to give several reasons why. The funniest and most pointed reason he gives is that in asking this question “you just activated [the hearer’s] Fundie-alert system and caused them to switch their brains into ignore mode. Instead of asking about a ‘personal savior’ you might want to simply try to get to know the person.” I would add to this observation that the very phrase “personal Savior” is not only in-house, Evangelical lingo, but it’s poorly chosen lingo. Nowhere in Scripture do we read of a ‘personal Savior.’ Surely there’s an historical context out of which the phrase grew, but for the life of me I can’t see how these words are meaningful to anyone today. (I’d lump “accepting Christ” into this category too, but at least there is biblical precedent for the phrase, even if only in one passage.)

#4) Tribulationism—I hardly feel able to write on this because all the end-times madness within Evangelicalism makes me nauseated. To focus so exclusively on the end-times at the expense of truly significant matters of the Gospel is revolting…plus I’m an amillenialist anyway, so all those pre-trib, pre-mil folks have it wrong anyway (grin).

#5) Testimonies—I’ll never forget that one of the most stressful parts of my seminary application was my “Personal Testimony.” Knowing how much emphasis is placed on this in the denomination affiliated with the school and coming from outside of that tradition, I worried incessantly over writing something that would be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The worst part of personal testimonies, despite their attempts to make the gospel ‘real’ to the unbeliever, is that all-too-often they focus exclusively on ‘me.’  As Carter says, “You are only a bit player in the narrative thread; the main part goes to the Divine Protagonist. In fact, He already has a pretty good story so why not just tell that one instead?” Touché, Mr. Carter.  Touché

#6) The altar call—I never understood why Baptistic Christians (Evangelicals-at-large) talked so much about altars when they don’t really have altars in their churches, something picked up by other folks as well. For me, this is part of the “Evangelical sacrament” discussed above.

#8) Protestant prayers—With respect to prayers, Carter writes:

First, I’m not used to hearing prayers that don’t contain the word “just” (as in “We just want to thank you Lord…”) so [the Lord’s prayer] had an odd ring to it. Second, it seemed to violate the accepted standards for public prayer. I had always assumed that praying in public required being able to interlace some just-want-to’s in with some Lord-thank-you-for’s and be- with-us-as-we’s in a coherent fashion before toppping it all with an Amen. Third, I thought that prayers are supposed to be spontaneous–from the heart, off the top of the head–emanations, rather than prepackaged recitations. If it ain’t original, it ain’t prayer, right? Can I get an amen?

I surely can’t articulate the current sad state of the predominance of our public prayers any better than that.

Mr. Carter sums up his entire post, an entire series of posts in fact, by saying, “We evangelicals don’t need tools of evangelism. We don’t need fads and fixtures. We don’t need anything more than the Gospel. For that is one fixture of our faith that will never go out of style.” How right he is! We don’t need all the silly, irreverent, stupid ‘stuff’ that not only comes and goes in fads but that has become so much of the permanent Evangelical identity—all of which, I’m afraid, has led to our irrelevance, mockery, and slander…not because of our faithfulness to Christ, which would be noble, but because of our own loss of the essence of the Gospel.

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The Essence of Salvation by Faith Alone

The Holy Scriptures undeniably describe faith as the only thing necessary for salvation.  They also teach that good works cannot justify a person before God or contribute in the least toward the attainment of salvation.  The Old Testament says that Abram ‘believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness’ (Gen 15.6).  Habakkuk testifies that ‘the righteous shall life by his faith’ (2.4), and Jeremiah cries, ‘Lord, aren’t You looking for loyalty?’ (5.3).

This doctrine stands in even stronger light in the books of the New Testament.  They remind us that faith, not works, is the way to salvation and blessedness.  Whenever a person sought help from Christ, we read that Christ looked only for faith. ‘All things are possible for one who believes’ (Mk 9.23),  Jesus told the father who needed help for his son and had failed to find it in the disciples.  To another father who had lost all hope for help with the report that his daughter was already dead, Jesus said, ‘Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well’ (Lk 8.50).  When another suffering father directed his petition to Him, after seeking help from the disciples in vain, Jesus replied, ‘Let it be done for you as you have believed’ (Mt 8.13).  This was His usual answer to those who sought His help.  Therefore, the apostles’ Epistles speak in this manner: ‘And to the one who does not work but trusts Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness’ (Rom 4.5); ‘For we hold that one is justified by faith apoart from works of the law’ (Rom 3.28); and ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (Eph 2.8-9).  There is still more.  In John’s Gospel, we are told that the Jews once asked Jesus, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus replied by pointing to faith: ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent’ (6.28-29).

Many are ashamed to seek salvation through faith in Christ, the Savior of the sinner, and instead they build their hope for eternity on their upright life.  They carelessly regard themselves as good, without having examined their heart, their thoughts, their words, and their works.  Even if a man lives uprightly, he will daily perceive how his conscience accuses him and declares him guilty.  If a person examines himself according to the Law of God revealed in the Holy Scriptures, he will see countless flaws and weaknesses.  If he fails to find them, he must be completely blind, wantonly closing the eyes of his soul to the mirror God hold before us.

Although our sin causes us to forfeit our claim to a blessed eternity, God once again opened to us the possibility of salvation through the offer of faith.  If He had not revealed this to us, all who had come to knowledge of their sinfulness would have had to live in despair and doubt.

May no one think that this doctrine is too holy for those who are weighed down by the knowledge of their sin.  However, it is dangerous to those who are happy in the midst of their sin.  Although love and good works save no one, both are still necessary as evidences that a person is truly standing in the saving faith.  Faith and love are related and inseparably connected like a father and his child.  Whoever says he is justified through faith before God must prove himself by his love before man.  Otherwise he is a liar, for faith works through love.
(from God Grant It:  Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther, pp 235-6)

(Note:  I don’t normally just copy and post something in toto without any commentary or thoughts of my own, but piece surely stands on its own and needs nothing from me!)

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Still More Luther on Prayer

Luther and Lutherans aren’t exactly known for being bold or fervent prayer warriors, which is unfortunate.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  We are scorned by many Evangelicals for our prepared collects and carefully crafted prayers…though clearly the Holy Spirit is more glorified by extemporaneous prayers, right?  Sarcasm aside, Luther was a bold warrior in prayer, and he has much to teach us if we will only listen.  It is well known that he wrestled constantly against the Devil, but he was one also to wrestle with God in prayer…boldly.  As he says:

We should pray with confidence, knowing that God will answer our requests without delay.  It’s impossible for sincere, persistent prayer to remain unheard.  But because we don’t believe, we aren’t persistent enough and don’t experience God’s goodness and help.  So we must become more enthusiastic about faith and prayer, knowing that God is pleased when we persevere.  In fact, God ordered us to be persistent in prayer:  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Mt 7.7).

Our prayers are answered much differently–actually, more generously–than we could ever ask or imagine (Eph 3.20).  Paul says, “In the same way…” (Rom 8.26-27).

We always ask for less than we should and don’t even think God is willing to give us what we ask for.  We don’t ask the right way.  We don’t understand that what we pray about is more important than we can comprehend.  We think small, but the Lord is great and powerful.  He expects us to ask for great things.  He wants to give them to us to demonstrate his almighty power.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 6:158)

Let our own prayers be emboldened, and “let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most!” (Heb 4.16 NLT).

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Luther on Faith and Works

Lutherans are often accused from without of being antinomian, in the pejorative sense, and teaching (formally or at least in practice) that God establishes no moral norms on the Christian believer.  This unfortunate reality is nothing more than the result of poor doctrinal instruction mingled with our uncanny sinful ability to rationalize sin.  Such a bastardized notion of “Christian freedom” may well be evident to some degree in American Lutheranism, but neither Scripture nor Martin Luther will have anything to do with it.

Luther properly understood and wonderfully articulated the distinction and close connection of faith and works.  Perhaps his most famous explanation comes from the opening pages of his work, “Concerning Christian Liberty,” where he writes, “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”  This pithy maxim holds in proper tension the freedom we have from works as a means of justification and the obligation we have to serve our neighbors by our works.  Luther brings out the practical difficulty of teaching these truths in preaching and teaching when he writes on John 15:

Jesus is saying, “You are in me and remain in my, so make sure you keep my commandments.  For I must give each of you a task as a sign to others that you are my true branches.  That task is to love each other.  I keep this command myself so that I can be an example and model to you.  And I remain in my Father’s love because I keep this command.  Therefore, if you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.”  Earlier in this book, Christ also says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13.35).

So there are two parts of Christian teaching that we must emphasize daily.  Neither faith nor works can be ignored.  For when faith isn’t preached–when no one explains how we are joined to Christ and become branches in him–then everyone resorts to their own works.  On the other hand, when we teach only about faith, this lopsidedness leads to false Christians.  These people praise faith, are baptized, and even call themselves Christians, but they don’t show any fruit or power.

That’s why it’s so difficult to preach.  No matter how I preach, something goes wrong.  Someone always goes off on a tangent.  If I don’t preach about faith, the result will be useless and hypocritical works.  If I only emphasize faith, no one does any good works.  The result is either useless, faithless do-gooders or believers who don’t do any good works.  So we must preach the message to those who accept both faith and works.  We must preach to those who want to remain in the vine, put their trust in Christ, and put their faith into action in their everyday lives.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 24:249)

Brothers and sisters in Christ, by God’s grace, let us hold fast to our unwavering faith in Christ and let us put our faith into action as we live out our lives each day.  Soli Deo gloria.

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