One of the websites I read, Reformation 21, posted a positive mini-review of a blogger who had posted an article titled “A Vent About Lent” on her own blog. That article prompted me out of the longsuffering I have been trying to maintain toward anti-tradition, anti-symbolism, and ultimately gnostic attitudes people bring into Christianity and Scripture. It is not surprising that the approach in that article is something like, “oh I’m such a bad idolatrous sinner I don’t need extra-biblical stuff to tempt me; I just need the gospel, Christ-alone, I’m free,” which takes a truth (one I hold dear, actually), and mixes it up in the application.
I remember many years ago when R. C. Sproul said that every time he hears people saying “I don’t need to know theology; all I need to know is Jesus,” he wants to stop them and ask “well who is Jesus?” And, as soon as you ask that question, you’ve embarked into theology. And theology is not just words and dry propositions. The study of God from the beginning has been symbol-laden, body-bound, complex and beautiful. If people think they can say, “I don’t need 2000 years of Church history and practice; all I need is Christianity,” I would ask them, “what is Christianity?” which, of course, opens the door to a discussion of not just belief, not just history, but practice as well. What of the Sacraments? Are there no mysteries there? Have we become so gnostic that like Donald Miller we can go hang out at a loading dock with some friends and hold an impromptu Lord’s Supper with hot chocolate and cookies? Like him, can we prefer—or even advocate—making a habit of avoiding church? Are we to be skeptical of church practices because “everyone is doing it?” Since when did the gospel become anti-community, anti-body-of-Christ, and instead about our own personal bonding experiences and seeking after spiritual moments? Is this what the priesthood of all believers and sola Scriptura has been reduced to?
It’s one thing if you want to point out ways people pridefully fail at the spiritual discipline of fasting. “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18) Yes, that’s Jesus, saying “when you fast.” Twice.
It is quite another to scoff at people for holding to traditions which may actually have theological and spiritual significance. Traditions are not salvific, sure. No deed is. “The thief on the cross only needed to confess Christ, and he was promised paradise,” one might say. This is absolutely true, and God is merciful, yea and amen! But what of those of us who have more than a few minutes left to live? Shouldn’t we respond to the grace we’ve been given, dive into the richness of who God is and what he has done, and what he has promised to do both for and through his church? “Thanks for the ticket to salvation, Jesus, oh, and I guess thanks for the earthly life, too, but I’m good with a thief-on-the-cross faith.”
I’m afraid that the “all I need is the gospel” pose has become shallow and rootless, and apologies for the mixed metaphor, but this is exactly what is sinking the Evangelical ship. Read Confessions Of An Ex-Evangelical, Pro-SSM Millennial, and witness the shipwreck of someone raised in a faith unmoored from the historical church. All we need is the gospel? Yes, and no.
It is a truth that all we need as humans to maintain metabolism is roughly 2000-ish calories per day, a particular ratio of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, and certain vitamins and minerals. Yet can you imagine leaving it at that, and drinking a sterile, sallow, sludge for every meal? It shouldn’t shock us that some people seek such a spartan/puritanical goal, but we should all be prepared to fight back when they start arguing that we are wrong for finding joy and blessings in a diet variegated in taste and texture. It would be worse if the criticism was against us sharing these blessings with others at our immediate table and through the generations by writing down recipes we have found to be good, but even moreso, for receiving recipes from others through the ages? “Beef Burgundy? No thanks, I’m authentic. I’ll just randomly assemble groceries.”
The gospel is truth, yes, even a singular truth. The gospel should transform us, but not in a vacuum. If it is indeed possible to build up one’s relationship with Jesus by practicing spiritual disciplines, wouldn’t it behoove us to do so? How would one go about such a thing? One could start by looking to what others have already said and done, and why. (Hint: that’s tradition.) Acting as if it is best, not only for every generation, but for every person to start with this truth alone and build upon it with their own wherewithal is not just unwise, but cruel. The Church—Jesus’ Church—has built a roof, a dining hall, a library, a village, a city upon this truth over the ages. It’s not perfect, but it is shelter and community, and we can take refuge and comfort and strength in it as we delight in the wondrous truth of the gospel. It helps to keep us from having our faith, our grasp of the gospel, from being blown about by the sophistries of the age, whether naive or malicious.
But suppose we want to shed church history, church traditions, the patristic writers, and maybe even the Old Testament while we’re at it, and we just want Jesus. “Don’t give me anything else, just give me Jesus.”
Well, Jesus fasted, Jesus suffered, Jesus respected his Jewish heritage (“go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” Luke 5:14). Yes, indeed, he fulfilled the law. He also gave instruction, established a church made of people, instituted sacraments, said “pick up your cross and follow me,” which certainly sounds sacrificial rather than triumphant.
Through Paul, he told us, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:23-25) Traditions and traditional spiritual disciplines are nothing if not the result of obedience to “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” Again, they are not perfect, but they are not to be easily or flippantly dismissed. We live in a country where no one is forced to observe the traditions of anyone else, so if you don’t care for Lent, if you find in your conscience that it somehow hinders instead of spiritually disciplining you, then fine. But please do not use the examples of a few facebook postings, or oddly, the fact that “everyone is doing it,” as grounds to scoff at a church tradition from within the church.