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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Friday, February 15, 2008

Lenten Freedom

I wrote this piece last year about this time, at the beginning of Lent, and since we are in the Lenten season again, I thought it might be appropriate to write a few more thoughts. My feelings and thoughts about the practice have not significantly changed since last year. I am still inconsistent in my Lenten observance, I still have a concern about legalism, and I still have a concern about the tendency to focus on one’s own piety rather than on Christ. This came up again for me as I was glancing back over Calvin’s comments on fasting in his Institutes, in book 4, chapter 12, sections 19 and 20. Calvin speaks of three errors in fasting: the error of fasting as a mere outward observance as divorced from inward repentance; the error of regarding “fasting as a work of merit or a form of divine worship”; and a third error, which Calvin explains as follows:

…to require it to be kept too strictly and rigidly as if it were one of the chief duties, and to extol it with such immoderate praises that men think they have done something noble when they have fasted. In this respect, I dare not wholly absolve the ancient writers from having sown certain seeds of superstition and having furnished the occasion of the tyranny which afterward arose. In them one sometimes comes across sane and wise statements about fasting, but later one repeatedly meets immoderate praises of fasting, which set it up among the chief virtues.

At that time the superstitious observance of Lent had prevailed everywhere, because the common people thought that in it they were doing some exceptional service to God, and the pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ. On the contrary, it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example for others, but to prove, in so beginning to proclaim the gospel, that it was no human doctrine but actually one sent from heaven [Matt. 4:2]. And the marvel is that such sheer hallucination (which is refuted so often and with such clear arguments) could creep upon men of keen judgment. For Christ does not fast often – as he would have to do if he had willed to lay down a law of yearly fasting – but only once, when he girded himself for the proclamation of the gospel. Nor does he fast in human fashion, as would have been fitting if he willed to arouse men to imitate him; but he shows an example rather to transport all men to admiration of him than to arouse them with zeal to imitate him.


Calvin proceeds from here on in discussing the history of fasting in the church, but this section contains the part that really struck me. Let me say first that I think Calvin overstates his case when he sets Christ as Saviour as over against Christ as example. He is to be both for us. In fact, one of the purposes of the church calendar is that we might order our lives after Christ in a symbolic yet real way, and I think this is a good thing. Yet the problem in the church prior to Calvin had been exactly the opposite, that of neglecting Christ as Saviour in favour of Christ as example. This rang especially true for me, having observed Catholic and Anglo-Catholic practices over the past few years. It is understandable for one (whether clergy or laity) to look at the immorality of our society and think that the pressing need is to emphasize self-discipline and personal piety, or, as traditional Reformed and Lutheran dogmatics has called it, the Law. But as Calvin here points out, the real answer for lawlessness is the work of Jesus Christ, that is, the Gospel. That isn’t to say that the Law shouldn’t be preached. But the Law can save no one, not even Christians. Certainly, I can’t just ignore my sin. I have to flee sin. But the power to flee sin comes from the Gospel. We access this power by worshipping Christ. Christ’s first concern is that we, as Calvin put it, admire Him. Without adoring Christ first, and keeping Him ever before us in our thoughts and our hearts, our pursuit of holiness will be in vain.

In light of this matter of the centrality of the work of Jesus Christ, I was thinking of the following song the other day, entitled "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree". This is a song I return to often, especially when I find myself struggling with some sin or despairing over a sinful habit I can’t seem to kick. Notice the emphasis on resting in Christ. The songwriter, who is unknown, does not say, “I’m done with my former licentiousness, I will now get busy for Jesus.” He says, “I’m weary with my former toil, I will now rest in Jesus.” The point here is that Christ, and Christ alone, saves. This is not to say we don’t have to strive for holiness. But even my holiness isn’t my work; it is the work of a sovereign God. And when all is said and done, I will be saved, and it will be Christ who saves me. The words have been set to different tunes, but the tune I prefer is featured on the cd Faire is the Heaven: Music of the English Church, by the Cambridge Singers. In process of locating the words on the web, I found this video of the Choir of King’s College in Cambridge singing the song to the same tune as the Cambridge Singers. Those of you who are of a more scholarly bent might find it interesting that the tune is structured in a sort of chiastic fashion, with the first and fifth verses having only the melody and therefore being the simplest, and the middle verse being the most complex harmonically.


The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell,
His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne'er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
'Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I'm weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest a while:
I'm weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest a while:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive:
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive:
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

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