Should You Cancel Good Friday?

Your Protestant church probably doesn’t observe the church calendar that marks such events as Epiphany and Pentecost. You might even regard this structure as legalistic, subversive of the true gospel of grace.

But make no mistake: you follow some calendar. It might be the school year, based on the agricultural seasons of planting, growing, and harvesting. Or it might be the so-called Hallmark Church Calendar: Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Fathers’s Day, Fourth of July, Veterans Day, and so on. The same goes for our liturgy. Every church has a liturgy. The only question is whether it’s edifying and biblical.

Perhaps responding to the secular calendars adopted by so many Protestant churches, many congregations across the denominational spectrum have reached back into Christian history to clean up and capture structures that follow the story of Scripture. Lent is one such season leading up to Easter marked by fasting, repentance, and anticipation. Though typically associated with Roman Catholics, Lent has been infused with gospel-centered theology by many evangelicals today.

But not everyone thinks it’s a good idea to observe Lent. After all, it’s not prescribed by Scripture. The fast may send mixed messages to believers with a Roman Catholic background. By requiring Christians to practice something not mandated by God’s Word, we may be inhibiting spiritual freedom. And the church calendar—even Easter—may imply that some days are more holy than others. Good Friday and Christmas might have gone mainstream, but many Protestants even today believe they distract from the Lord’s Day and thus do not mark them on their calendars.

In the latest edition of Going Deeper with TGC, host Mark Mellinger and I talk about the origins, theology, and practice of Lent with Ligon Duncan, senior minister of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi. He traces the roots of Lent to Pope Gregory the Great in the 500s and explains its explicitly meritorious purpose. And he cites the history of Reformation in Switzerland, which began with eating sausages during Lent. Whether you side with Duncan or agree with Lutherans and Anglicans that we can keep liturgical ceremonies while adapting their theology, you’ll benefit from listening to Duncan and going deeper with the sources he mentions:

As the podcast continues, The Gospel Project managing editor Trevin Wax talks with 9Marks editorial director Jonathan Leeman about the Old Testament wisdom literature. How do we read and rightly apply these passages? Leeman walks through Psalm 20 to show how we read through the lens of what Jesus Christ has accomplished on our behalf. Wax closes by asking Leeman how we should interpret Song of Solomon: is it a love poem or allegory of Christ and the church?

Finally, Mark and I wrap up by previewing Kathleen Nielson’s new series on Flannery O’Connor. I also discuss Wheaton College president Phil Ryken’s workshop at The Gospel Coalition National Conference on How Pastors Can Encourage Artistic Gifts. You can register for the conference and sign up to learn from Ryken. Stay tuned to the very end of the podcast to learn about an upcoming series led by Ryken on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel beloved by many pastors today.

You can stream the full podcast below, download the mp3, or subscribe to Going Deeper with TGC on iTunes or through your other mobile devices.

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Going Deeper with TGC, 2-22, with Ligon Duncan

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  • Vance Freeman

    Pastor Duncan’s (whom I respect very much) answer to why have Christmas and Easter but not Lent is unsatisfying. In fact, I didn’t really hear him ever explain why. Each of his reasons for not observing Lent are undercut by the observance of Christmas and Easter. And I respectfully doubt that Christmas and Easter Sunday have no more significance at First Presbyterian than any other Lord’s Day.

    Pastors and academics recognize, as Pastor Duncan does in the podcast, the Enlightenment fallacy of neutrality. The calendar is not neutral (the months are the names of Roman gods for goodness sake!). If we were a little more gracious to the medievals (as some church historians are starting to be), then we might see that they recognized this.

    The biggest threat to Christianity today is not the church in Rome, or that Americans are prone to elevate traditional Christian rituals, like Lent, over discipleship. The biggest threat to the church is that our rituals are increasingly only secular ones. We are Americans before we are Christians. Super Bowl Sunday not only competes with the Lord’s Day, it dominants it. And when we relegate the Christian life to a mere facet of our American lives we fall into Moral Therapeutic Deism.

    My presbyterian church observes the liturgical calendar to resist being conformed to this world. But instead of just arbitrarily picking Christmas and Easter to observe, we follow the entire pattern as a constant reminder of who is our true Lord and sovereign.

  • John Carpenter

    The head-line and the article don’t fit each other.

    To the degree that Lent is about “anticipation”, it is contrary to the gospel. No one anticipates something that is accomplished completely in the past. Americans don’t imagine themselves to be a colony of Britain for 40 days prior to July 4 every year, anticipating independence all over again every year. They understand that is is finished. Christians should have at least as much sense of the perfect accomplishment of redemption at the cross.

    Good Friday, on the other hand, can be about remembering. And that is appropriate.

    • Therese Z

      You say that Lent is “contrary” to the gospel (although I can’t see why, since Jesus Himself recommends prayer and fasting to achieve and use the power of the Holy Spirit) but it is absolutely NOT contrary to human nature, and that’s what we have to work with here.

      Remembering, anticipating, walking the way of the Cross yet again. It’s a cleansing and humbling step and doing it every year helps us mark where we are in our spiritual journey.

      Some Protestants get waaaaaay too freaky over something that seems Catholic. Heavens. Lent is not salvific, it’s something that unites our prayer and reminds us the Price Paid for our sins.

  • Mike Bird

    Well said, I was gonna say the exact same thing, but you said it better.

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  • Uri Brito

    Here is my short essay responding and dealing with this matter:

  • beriggs

    Your essay, and the comments posted display a profound ignorance of Church history, and the Sacramental economy of which the Liturgical Calendar is a part. In the earliest centuries of the Church, those wishing to be baptized underwent a 1-3 year period of catechesis, and were tested by a Bishop to see if they had sufficient knowledge and a changed lifestyle, and if so, were admitted to “the elect,” to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. The 40 days before Easter were a time of intense prayer and fasting to prepare for Baptism and the Eucharist. The 40 days was also a time when “public sinners” who had caused scandal in the community did public penance, in preparation for a ritual re-welcoming back into the community of faith at Easter. Eventually, the majority of Christians saw this 40 day time as valuable for their spiritual growth, and they began to observe the practices as well. The repentance, fasting, alsmgiving and prayer act as an entering into the suffering and death of Christ, to be contrasted with the immense joy and life of the Resurrection.
    The Church, which lives at the intersection of chronological time and “kairos,” or eternal time, unites herself with Jesus, who eternally sits at the right hand of the Father, but also appears eternally as the Lamb that was slain. The events in Salvation indeed happened in earthly, historical time, yet they exist for us in the eternal now of Heaven, and are available to us to enter and experience in our own historical time.

  • Bob in Maryland

    I found this essay very much worth reading, but as a Catholic, it saddened me to find this line:

    “Though typically associated with Roman Catholics, Lent has been infused with gospel-centered theology by many evangelicals today.”

    Please rest assured that Catholics’ observance of Lent has ALWAYS been “gospel-infused”. We are following no less than Christ’s own example of His 40-day fast in the desert following His baptism.

  • Troy Jones

    There is a saying “In order to love, you must first say no to something else.”

    Maybe there is some who can walk with Christ with total concentration every single day but I haven’t met that person. Our brokenness makes life a series of steps forward and backward. With God’s grace, Lent is a time where we can especially concentrate on doing better.

    Extra-ordinary fasting, repentance, and almsgiving keeps our will on task. And, like all exercise, doing this hard for 40 days builds virtue (good habits) we can take into the upcoming year.

    There is another saying “If you keep doing what you have always done, don’t be surprised if you keep getting the same result.” Lent is a time we can especially dedicate our God-given will to “do something different.”

    P.S. As beriggs addresses, there is a misunderstanding with regard to “anticipation.” Catholics do not assert or teach Christ is being re-crucified again (Whenever I hear that, it totally flumoxes me on how they could ever think it as it is so far from reality). But, instead we anticipate an intense reflection of our role in Christ’s crucifixion and intensely enter into His Passion (compassion) on Good Friday.

    Historically and still practiced in those faith traditions that have always observed the Lenten season, Lent is an especially diligent focus on fasting, repentence, and almsgiving in pursuit of greater holiness. Anticipation? Not in the way Evangelicals misunderstand Catholic teaching with regard time (see beriggs for more detail.

    But we are preparing for (anticipating) entering into the Passion of our Lord spiritually (compassion) beginning on Holy Thursday until Easter Sunday.

    Lent is one such season leading up to Easter marked by fasting, repentance, and anticipation. – See more at:

  • Simon

    I think Ligon’s reasoning concerning a minimal church calendar and the centrality of the Lord’s day is faulty when it comes to the New Testament. Where is the positive command in the NT that tells us that the Lord’s day must be central to Christian worship. There are only passing mentions that Christians gathered on the first day. It also says St Paul went to the Synagogue. The fact is that the NT does not deal with the Church calendar – whether it be weekly liturgy or other holy days.

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