John Calvin on Lent

This week I was pleasantly surprised to see the Reformed Baptist Fellowship blog re-post my article on Lent.  It’s not an issue quite like justification or the Trinity, but it’s important nonetheless for a variety of reasons.  In some sense it is indeed connected to justification, particularly how we view our own actions before God.  Rather than go on about this again, I’d much rather quote someone whose theological knowledge dwarfs my own.

In the Institutes of the Christian Religion (4.12.20), John Calvin had this to say about the practice of Lent:

Then the superstitious observance of Lent had everywhere prevailed: for both the vulgar imagined that they thereby perform some excellent service to God, and pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ; though it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example to others, but, by thus commencing the preaching of the gospel, meant to prove that his doctrine was not of men, but had come from heaven.

And it is strange how men of acute judgment could fall into this gross delusion, which so many clear reasons refute: for Christ did not fast repeatedly (which he must have done had he meant to lay down a law for an anniversary fast), but once only, when preparing for the promulgation of the gospel. Nor does he fast after the manner of men, as he would have done had he meant to invite men to imitation; he rather gives an example, by which he may raise all to admire rather than study to imitate him.

In short, the nature of his fast is not different from that which Moses observed when he received the law at the hand of the Lord (Exod. 24:18; 34:28). For, seeing that that miracle was performed in Moses to establish the law, it behoved not to be omitted in Christ, lest the gospel should seem inferior to the law. But from that day, it never occurred to any one, under pretence of imitating Moses, to set up a similar form of fast among the Israelites.

Nor did any of the holy prophets and fathers follow it, though they had inclination and zeal enough for all pious exercises; for though it is said of Elijah that he passed forty days without meat and drink (1 Kings 19:8), this was merely in order that the people might recognise that he was raised up to maintain the law, from which almost the whole of Israel had revolted.

It was therefore merely false zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ; although there was then a strange diversity in the mode of the fast, as is related by Cassiodorus in the ninth book of the History of Socrates: “The Romans,” says he, “had only three weeks, but their fast was continuous, except on the Lord”s day and the Sabbath. The Greeks and Illyrians had, some six, others seven, but the fast was at intervals. Nor did they differ less in the kind of food: some used only bread and water, others added vegetables; others had no objection to fish and fowls; others made no difference in their food.” Augustine also makes mention of this difference in his latter epistle to Januarius.

It’s clear that the human condition is indeed universal.  There’s always a tendency to want to “do something.”  To add something to the Gospel.  To craft something of our own in order to please God.  This is especially appealing to the uniquely American philosophy of pragmatism.  Praise God that He is pleased with His people only because He is pleased with the person and work of His Son, our only Mediator.

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4 Responses to John Calvin on Lent

  1. MarieP says:

    Hey, brother, I agree that Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness wasn’t meant to mean that we must give up something for 40 days as well. But is the problem the desire to “do something,” or is it rather the desire to either “do something that God never commanded” or “do something that is not out of a Gospel-cleansed heart of faith?” Does not the work of the Holy Spirit in the child of God please our Heavenly Father as well? When we don’t obey God, aren’t we under His Fatherly displeasure? I know you are striving to defend the great doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. And we as believers are never any more or any less justified in the courtroom of God. But so often we speak of “pleasing God” as if it’s a bad thing. I can do things, by the Spirit and cleansed by the blood of Christ through faith, that please God. When I was in the flesh, I couldn’t (Rom. 8:8). But now by God’s grace I am not in the flesh (Rom. 8:9). And sadly I do things that displease God, bringing His fatherly discipline.

    1 Cor. 7:32- “But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord.”

    2 Cor. 5:
    9 Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.

    Phil. 2:12-13 “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”

    Phil 4:18 “Indeed I have all and abound. I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God.”

    Col. 1:9-10 “For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God”

    Col. 3:20 “Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord.”

    1 Thess. 4:1-2 “Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God; for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus.”

    2 Thess. 1:11- “Therefore we also pray always for you that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of His goodness and the work of faith with power”

    2 Tim. 2:3-4 “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier.”

    Heb. 13:16- “But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.”

    Heb. 13:20-21 “Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

    1 John 3:22- ” And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.”

    • Hey sister, I appreciate your comment. Those are excellent points of clarification. I think there’s a tendency in Reformed circles to forget our status before God as redeemed men/women. We still sin, but we’re no longer in bondage to it. Depravity is still there, but not total depravity. And so we battle the “old man” for the rest of our lives (sanctification), though we ought to do so with the utmost confidence (Phil. 4:13). I think it’s perfectly okay for us to say that we can (and do) please God, so long as we also understand the basis for being able to do so in not of ourselves. I hope that makes sense.

  2. Pingback: Lent: Of Good Intentions, Spiritual Disciplines, and Christian Freedom | Reformed Christian Heritage Blog

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