What Lent Is Really about—and How We Miss the Point

By Steven Wedgeworth

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:15–17)

The Church season known as Lent is here again. 

Many Christians who did not grow up practicing the liturgical calendar are now becoming very interested in it. Some are madly in love with all things liturgical, seeing Lent as one way to rediscover lost roots. Others are critical of it as faddishness, a sort of picking and choosing of one’s piety according to whatever seems interesting. And then there’s always the perpetual danger of subtle Romanizing. 

Lent can be abused in a legalistic way, especially if it is formalized and made into a fixed rule. We should be on guard against this.

Lent is a waste of time and spiritual failure unless it points us to Jesus.

But the basic concept of Lent is repentance, and this is certainly a good thing and something the Church could talk about more.

Like everything connected with liturgy, repentance should be an aid in worship, a way of assisting our thoughts and devotions in focusing on God’s majesty, our sinfulness, and the salvation we have in Jesus Christ.

A proper focus for Lent—and response

What would you think if you saw a man staring at his own glasses? He might be adjusting them or fixing something that had broken. That would make sense. But what if he never seemed to finish? What if he just kept staring and commenting on his glasses, asking other folks to admire his glasses, but never got around to actually wearing them? You’d think he probably didn’t know what glasses were for in the first place or that he had some other serious disorder. You certainly wouldn’t be inspired by the wonderful blessing of cured vision! 

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Liturgy works the same way as a pair of glasses. You are not supposed to look at it. Instead you are supposed to look through it to see something else—namely, Jesus. Lent is a waste of time and spiritual failure unless it points us to Jesus. How should it do that? When focusing on repentance, we ought to remember the significance of our sin, the guilt we bear before God, and the great price paid by Jesus on our behalf. We have no hope of atoning for our own sins. That would be insane, an impossibility that would only leave us in perpetual despair.

When personal happiness, the realization of life goals, and fulfillment become our chief goals, then they become replacements for the cross.

No, instead we remember the death of Christ and the curse he bore for us, and—in response to that saving act—we put to death the remaining sin within us to show our gratitude toward Jesus.

Psalm 51 is particularly fitting in this light. You will recall that it is King David’s prayer of repentance after Nathan the prophet convicted him of his sin with Bathsheba. It teaches us about true repentance and forgiveness. Notice that David does not believe that the offering of bulls and goats washes away sin. In fact, they are not even “true sacrifices.” They are only symbols of the sacrifice of praise coming from the human heart:

Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom. . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. . . . For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise. (vv. 6, 10, 16–17)

Those last lines about brokenness are what I wish to focus on. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a contrite heart. This is how we must approach God. And it might sound strange to you, but we have to learn how to be broken and contrite. It does not come naturally. We must cultivate a sense of brokenness in order to worship God in the only way he finds acceptable—with true sacrifices.

Lent and brokenness

The first thing we need to do is identify the broken heart and spirit. This is especially necessary because the modern Church has, in many ways, lost its brokenness. . . . When personal happiness, the realization of life goals, and fulfillment become our chief goals, then they become replacements for the cross. They become idols. And if a broken heart is necessary for offering true sacrifices to God, then any life philosophy that prevents brokenness prevents the true worship of God.

What is this brokenness we need? Psalm 51 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart.” Textually, there’s not much to it. It’s all quite plain. The words for “spirit” and “heart” are used interchangeably to signify the inner man. It all means to bring low and to crush. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and crushed heart.” Broken, broken, and crushed. The term for “contrite” is an amplification of the word “broken.” And so true sacrifices are broken and contrite people

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We must be humble. We must think of ourselves as lowly and in need of help. We must be dependent. And during those times when we are none of these things—when we are proud, content with ourselves, independent, and carefree—during those times, God breaks us to bring us back to him. Brokenness produces the true sacrifices of God: the sacrificed person.

That the true man [or woman] of God must be broken is a teaching emphasized throughout both the Old and New Testament. Psalm 34:18 states, “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, And saves such as have a contrite spirit.” Isaiah writes, “On this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isa 66:2). Jesus himself says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . blessed are those who mourn” (Matt 5:3–4). It would be impossible for any sincere reading of the Scriptures to miss this point. 

But we do miss it, and that is because we are often looking for something other than what God has to say on this matter. Jesus himself was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa 53:3). When we seek a Christianity without these markers, we seek a Christianity without Christ.

. . .

Conclusion

Brokenness is a way for God to draw us to himself. He humbles us so that we can believe the truth about ourselves and about him: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom” (Psalm 51:5–6). God is peeling away the skin of our old Adam so that we can better see Jesus.

That’s what a continual broken heart understands. We are always breaking with our old self to be more at one with God in Christ. And we should take comfort in this. Sorrow over our sins is itself a gift of grace. The broken and contrite heart he does not despise. God restores our joy, but it is always the joy of salvation, the joy of being saved from our sins and our sorrows. And so when you bring your sacrifices, offer yourself to God in humility. Don’t make excuses or try to clean yourself up. Just bear your broken spirit. That is a true sacrifice and acceptable worship.

In the coming weeks, whether you formally practice Lent or not, take the opportunity to be broken. Remember your sins. Be honest with yourself. And then repent with a broken spirit and a contrite heart. These offerings are acceptable to God, and through the love of Christ, he will reveal his grace to you. 

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Scripture cited from the New King James Version.

This post is adapted from Wedgewords, “Lent and the Sacrifices of God,” by Steven Wedgeworth (Feb 22, 2015). 

The headings and title of this post are the additions of the editor. The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife.  

Steven Wedgeworth (MDiv, Reformed Theological Seminary) is the Associate Pastor of Faith Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is a board member for The Davenant Institute, the founder of The Calvinist International website, and has written for Mere Orthodoxy, The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, The Gospel Coalition Canada, and the Journal of Law and Religion. His most recent publication is an essay in The Lord Is One: Reclaiming Divine Simplicity ed. Minich and Kamel (The Davenant Press, 2019).

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Comments

  1. This is a great post – and put a complete spiritual slant to the modern worldly habits which are developed through lent like – giving up smoke; giving up meat; no chocolates, etc.

  2. Joshua Brooks says

    Thanks for writing this article, Steve. Lent reminds us that we are sinners and points us to the One who died and rose again for the forgiveness of our sins (Rom 4:25). I felt the Holy Spirit nudging at my heart as I read about the purpose of lent – repentance.

    In the words of All Sons & Daughters:
    But You have called me higher
    You have called me deeper
    And I’ll go where You will lead me, Lord

    I felt challenged when I read, “When personal happiness, the realization of life goals, and fulfillment become our chief goals, then they become replacements for the cross.” Isn’t that what our culture brainwashes us into believing? I’m sorry, God, for putting self-help, career goals, or financial planning ahead of You. Please, God, have mercy on me – have mercy on us – and forgive us of our sins.

    May the Lord continue to works in our lives (Phil 1:6)!