But when it comes to ‘traditions of men,’ how is Lent any different from Advent, Christmas, or Easter? Are we really ready to dispose of every tradition? Is that even what God wants?

I don’t think so.

Christians today commonly speak of three different options for engaging ideas and practices in the world. We can reject them as inappropriate and unhelpful. We can receive them as good and helpful. Or we can “redeem” them by changing what is bad and reframing what is good. Reject. Receive. Redeem. (Others describe them as: abandon, accept, accommodate, but the meaning is essentially the same.)

I think that Lenten observance can be “redeemed” (or accommodated). The heart of Lent is a season of fasting, which Jesus seemed to expect for his followers to do. After all, he said “when you fast,” not “if you fast” (Matt. 6:16). In Lenten fasting we abstain from worldly pleasures to realize their power over us, to remind ourselves of our frailty and continual need of grace, and to rejoice that our appetite for sin has been forgiven and will one day be erased. I know of no Christian who would object to that!

And yet, Keith Miller joins with other evangelicals in offering a needed warning. The Reformers fought against the abuses of human tradition, which had been placed on part with Scripture and were being used to bind the consciences of believers. This explains their strong words against Lent, and I think they are highlighting a critical point: the grace of God—not the religious practices of men—is what forgives us and transforms us.

That is something all people, even followers of Jesus, are prone to forget. It is what led Martin Luther to say that religion is the default mode of the human heart. He knew that we are constantly tempted to rely on what we do for God, instead of relying what he has done for us in Christ.  

This is why the apostle Paul said, “These [traditions] have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23).

Without focusing on the grace of God, all fasting—including Lenten fasting—is just self-made religious tradition aimed at making us feel righteous because of something we do. But it doesn't have to be that way. Believers who observe Lent should remember that their fasting does not make them more righteous than those who do not observe Lent.  Similarly, believers who refrain from Lent ought to realize that not everyone who observes Lent does so believing that their efforts make them righteous in the eyes of God.

So this Lenten season, whether you eat or fast, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.

Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.