(Romans 8:12-14) Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
After reminding the Romans again of how the death and resurrection of Christ has cancelled their obligation to their sinful desires, and united them to the life and obedience of Christ, Paul enjoins them to mortify, or to put to death, the deeds of their former, unregenerate selves. This is Paul’s favorite formula: He declares to Christians who they are in Christ, and then commands them live in the way most consistent with who they are by virtue of their union with him.
Historically, this Lord’s Day has been called the First Sunday in Lent. Lent being the season leading up to Easter Sunday. In times past, God’s people have used this season to do exactly what Paul commanded the Romans to do in chapter 8, to “mortify the deeds of the body.” Granted, there have been many abuses of this observance. Some have trivialized it by giving up things like chocolate or pop. Some have disingenuously used it as a reason to diet or stop smoking. Some have used it as a sort of penance or a time to “do something for God.” And some have tried to bind men’s consciences with Lenten observances and practices, in the absence of a Biblical command to do so. All of this nonsense needs to be rejected “root and branch”, down to the ground and good riddance!
But many of the faithful, taking Paul’s command to heart have used this season, with great profit, as a means put to death the sinful desires and deeds of the flesh, and to prepare themselves more fully to celebrate the joyous import and meaning of Easter. How? Let me offer a few suggestions:
Jesus offers salvation to those who know themselves to be sinners, and rest to those who are weary and heavy laden. In God’s economy, life always comes through death, forgiveness through repentance, and exaltation through humbling. Therefore a good preparation for the joy of Easter is a thoroughgoing meditation upon our desperate need for a Savior, and our utter dependence upon the daily outpourings of his mercy and grace. Easter is “ho-hum” only for those who think too highly of themselves, but for those who have meditated upon their weakness, worldliness and wantonness, the message of the empty tomb is pure joy and unrestrained gladness!
You might also consider certain fastings in this season. But avoid the ones that are mere temporary deletions in your routines, and instead, search out the spiritual exercises that that will permanently alter you. By faith, seek opportunity to exercise the dominance of your spirit over your body.
However, lest Lenten discipline and devotion lead to smugness or a false sense of spiritual security, it must be noted that all such endeavors depend on grace. We do not save ourselves by virtue of such spiritual exercises; rather, we seek simply to alleviate the blockages that hinder God from working freely in us and through us. In other words, the messages of the great 50 days between Easter and Pentecost must be understood, loved and embraced before one can properly and profitably observe the 40 days leading up to Easter.
One final note: This coming Wednesday, called Ash Wednesday, marks the official beginning of the 40 days of Lent. But if you counted up the days on the calendar, it would appear that there are 46, not 40 days, of Lent. Hmmm. Why is that? The reason is most wonderful! Every Lord’s Day is a celebration of Easter, therefore not a single one can be a fast day. Every Sunday is a feast day and therefore cannot be included in the Lenten fast! In other words, the joy and gladness of Easter trumps the sobriety and sadness of Lent. The weakness of our flesh is conquered by the victory of the cross and the empty tomb.
God does indeed call us to sober meditation and to the strenuous subjugation of our sinful flesh, but never in a way where the love of God and the victory of Easter are far from view.