John A. Braun
On Ash Wednesday in some churches—some Lutheran churches too—ashes are placed on foreheads as a sign of repentance. For many, Lent is giving up some indulgence—like candy, greasy food, or even red meat—for 40 days. Conversations often start with the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Sadly the emphasis too often becomes a distortion of Lent.
Lent is a valuable time for God’s people to focus on Christ and his suffering and death. That’s the essential element of Lent. Lent sharpens our focus on what God has given to us through the cross of Christ.
For Lutherans that starts when the law of God brings into stark view what has caused his bloody death: our sins. We bow our heads as the publican in the temple did and pray, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
But Lent does not leave us in anguish and hopeless fear. The gospel raises our eyes to the cross where we see that Jesus has paid fully for our sins. Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Like the publican we go home with the comfort that we are justified—loved and forgiven by God because of Jesus. We offer God our praise and are filled with a renewed desire to serve him as dear children.
But sin does not disappear from our lives. Like children we find the law accuses us daily for careless failures as well as for unloving and defiant disobedience. We discover that once we hear the gospel we struggle to be obedient children. Sin still lives within us. Like Paul we know, “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). We are forgiven children but still disobedient—saints and sinners at the same time. So we return to the gospel—the Savior’s cross—for forgiveness and strength to renew our efforts to be the children God has made us.
We cannot earn his love and acceptance. Peter stumbled miserably, and so did all the other disciples as they fled into the night. But Jesus embraced them in forgiveness. That forgiveness made them ready to serve. Reminders of his forgiveness sustained them in the years ahead as they, like us, struggled to live as disciples and children of God. Each Lenten season, we come to the cross, humbled by our sins but then rejoicing that God has done what we could not do even after we know Jesus. Only the cross brings forgiveness and strength to live as God’s children.
Here’s where the distortion of Lent comes into view. “What are you giving up for Lent?” If you give something up for Lent so that you can think more often and more clearly about what Christ has done, there is no distortion. But if you think that giving up something for Lent makes you worthy of forgiveness and God’s approval, your picture is blurred. Your vision shifts from the cross and God’s undeserved gift.
Lent is a human practice; it’s not an ordinance from God. When we think that we can offer God anything for the gift of the cross, it is like trying to buy gold with play money. No matter how much we have, it will never be enough. Lent helps us focus not on what we can do for God but on the gold of forgiveness, life, and salvation that God freely gives to all sinners.
That’s a Lutheran emphasis. When we understand this, we come back to the cross for comfort and strength, not just at Lent, but regularly in our worship throughout the church year.
Author: John A. Braun
Volume 106, Number 3
Issue: March 2019